Area senior living communities help residents remain connected

Maintaining contact with family members and longtime friends (who often feel like family!), as well as making new friends, is vital as we age.

Isolation is bad for people. In fact, it can be downright debilitating.

According to an AARP study from 2012 called A Framework for Isolation in Adults Over 50, prolonged isolation can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In fact, people who were isolated were found to have higher rates of chronic health conditions like heart disease and even a weakened immune system. They are also more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, to use emergency services and be admitted to nursing facilities.

Their research also showed that social engagement helps keep one's brain healthy. Therefore, the converse is also true. A lack of social engagement can lead to a higher risk of developing various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.

Pathway to Living residents ride paddle boats during a camping trip organized by their senior living community. Courtesy of Pathway to Living

Research has also found that having dogs and cats as companions is associated with health benefits and reduced mortality in seniors. So, getting your loved one an easy-to-care-for, but interactive, pet might be a good idea.

Interacting with friends and family via social networking is another good option because keeping your mind stimulated and interacting with your peers is vital as you age. In fact, a study by the Rush Alzheimer's disease Center in Chicago found that highly social seniors suffered a 70 percent lower rate of cognitive decline than their less social counterparts. And another study by the University of Alabama in Birmingham found that those who used the internet had a 30 percent decrease in symptoms of depression.

If you live alone, you may also want to consider moving out of your longtime home and starting a new adventure at a senior living facility where you can make new friends. At most such communities, you can maintain as much independence as you want or need and can also end your social isolation.

“Senior communities like ours can encourage 'purposeful living' and give seniors a reason to get out of bed every morning,” said Maria Oliva, chief operating officer of Pathway to Living, which runs 30 senior communities in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.

After returning from a field trip to a farm, residents shuck sweet corn at a Pathway to Living senior living community. Courtesy of Pathway to Living

“Our staffs encourage seniors to continue to live life to the fullest and celebrate it at all stages through a wide array of activities and events,” Oliva said. “We let our residents know that they can still enjoy the things they enjoyed when they were younger - like camping, horseback riding, the arts, music and so forth - and can also learn new things that will bring them even more enjoyment. We also encourage our residents to do things that contribute to society like donating the pottery they make to a shelter or to a fundraising sale.”

Maintaining familial relationships is particularly vital for well-being as we age.

“There is no greater gift than family,” said Chris Andersen, executive director of Travanse Living at Grayslake. While phone conversations with beloved family members are good, face-to-face interactions are infinitely better, said Anderson.

As it happens, Travanse Living held a contest over the holidays, asking for a Christmas Wish they could grant for a resident. When they saw the wish of 85-year-old Mary Perucca to see her three younger sisters, they couldn't wait to grant it.

The sisters live five hours away by car and, because of health issues, Perucca had not seen them since 2015. She had even missed her oldest sister's funeral in 2017.

The trio visited in late February and that visit was a dream-come-true that undoubtedly boosted all four of the women. Travanse Living greeted the sisters with a champagne toast and then treated them to a complimentary stay in a local hotel and a trip to Marriott Lincolnshire to see “The Million Dollar Quartet.”

Maintaining personal relationships, familial and otherwise, is integral to every individual's mental, emotional and physical well-being. This only becomes truer as we age.

The staffs at Pathway to Living also encourage residents to share their talents with their new neighbors. New residents are asked to give lectures on topics they know well or give concerts on musical instruments they play.

“We have found that people feel better and stay healthier when they are in a social environment and stay engaged with others. There is less depression and less of a health decline. And when they continue to use their bodies through exercising and physical exertion, there is less loss of physical abilities,” Oliva said.

Even a connection with others that is as simple as eating meals together regularly and conversing about the news of the day or other favorite topics can alleviate isolation-based depression, she added.

It is also worth noting, however, that being involved in an unhealthy relationship can be even more stressful and toxic than being alone.

Experts urge that the elderly avoid depression and stay intellectually stimulated by:

 Nurturing their social networks by maintaining close personal relationships.

 Playing “mind” games like crossword puzzles, chess and other intellectually stimulating games.

 Joining a club in order to meet new people and enjoy favorite pastimes.

 Going back to work, even part time.

 Volunteering in their communities.

 Offering assistance to their families by doing things like baby-sitting.

Humans are psychologically and biologically programmed to need social networks, according to an article in the “Journal of Aging Life Care,” written by Dr. Clifford Singer of the University of Maine.

It seems too simple, but research has found that elderly people with good social networks enjoy better health. And the number of regular social contacts elderly people enjoy, as well as the quality of those interactions, decrease loneliness, depression and poor health. Interactions through the telephone, email and social media are decidedly not as good as face-to-face contact, Singer found, but they are better than nothing. In fact, he found that people with once- or twice-a-week contact had the lowest rates of depression.

Beyond those things, think about your neighbors, friends and family members and if one of them seems at risk for social isolation, stop by with cookies or pick up the phone and invite them to go out for lunch.

If you are worried about yourself, invite someone to meet you for a meal, get to know your neighbors, enroll in a class to learn something new and meet people, or get involved in a community activity. If you make an effort to stay engaged, you will undoubtedly be happier and you may even stay healthier.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.